Food & Culture

Dream teams: couples who run some of our best restaurants

The restaurant trade is famously tough on relationships. But what about when you’re working together? We talk to the couples behind some of our top eateries about the secret to working with your other half.

By Lee Tran Lam
Sarah Doyle & Elvis Abrahanowicz (Photo: Will Horner)

Sarah Doyle & Elvis Abrahanowicz

Porteño, Sydney
Things could have been very different. Sarah Doyle was a balloon artist at Australia's Wonderland, while Elvis Abrahanowicz considered selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Luckily for diners, they met and, six years later, opened Bodega with Ben Milgate and Joe Valore. Abrahanowicz had cooked professionally, but Doyle was new to hospitality, so her crash-course in front-of-house came between her Bonds marketing job on weekdays, and nightclub shifts on the weekend (a financial necessity at the time). "We had no idea what we were doing," says Abrahanowicz. Now they're involved in 12 venues, and their belongings, including vases, rugs and signs, adorn them all. "Every restaurant has our crap in it," says Doyle. A pizzeria called Bella Brutta and a second Continental Deli opened recently, too, after some delays. Which, for once, the pair had embraced. It means they can focus on another collaboration: their daughter, Maybelline, is about to be joined by twins.
Anna & Alessandro Pavoni (Photo: Will Horner)

Anna & Alessandro Pavoni

Ormeggio at The Spit, Sydney
Anna Pavoni still remembers the moment. She was at Luna Blu in Sydney, interviewing for a job as a waiter. She noticed Alessandro Pavoni looking at her from the kitchen and was instantly struck: "Oh my God, I think he's going to be trouble for me," she thought, "in a good way." The chef, who is from Brescia, in Italy's north, did not let language differences get in their way. "When we met, I didn't speak English and she didn't speak Italian. I used to get one of my waiter friends to translate love letters and pass them to her to get her to go out with me." It paid off. The pair ended up married with two kids and four restaurants – something of a miracle after Pavoni's bouts with cancer, plus two heart attacks. Anna handles the back-of-house operations while Pavoni is all about the food – even if he isn't allowed to proofread menus ("in English or Italian!" he says). So who is the boss of the business? "Is that a trick question?" asks Alessandro. "No comment," says Anna.
Ben Sears & Eun Hee An (Photo: Will Horner)

Ben Sears & Eun Hee An

Paper Bird, Sydney
Chefs Eun Hee An and Ben Sears didn't hit it off instantly. "He kept making fun of me," Hee An says. "She was very shy. Like, ridiculously shy," says Sears. "It took a while for her to come out of her shell." Things eventually clicked while they were cooking at Claude's in Sydney, and they went on to open Moon Park together, drawing on Hee An's Korean heritage for the food. "Things like our kimchi, cheong, Korean stocks and namuls are all made how her grandmother showed her," Sears says. It also underpins the menu at their current restaurant, Paper Bird. Working in the kitchen together has its challenges. Sears recalls bitterly arguing about "the size of pastry cutter we should use on discs of pear and wondering if this was really how I wanted to live my life". But there haven't been any real disasters, and they appreciate each other's strengths. Sears is in charge of breaking down meat, while Hee An excels at rice dishes ("his rice isn't very good," she says). But who calls the shots when they're off-duty? "The rule is, we never cook at home", Hee An says. "Our kitchen is spotless."
Tina Li & Ye Shao (Photo: Jules Kingma)

Tina Li & Ye Shao

Dainty Sichuan, Melbourne
Though they now run an empire of more than a dozen eateries in two cities, it wasn't always a given that Tina Li and Ye Shao would become restaurateurs. Li worked at a laundry factory while Shao ran a Chinese-medicine clinic. When they met she was struck by his conscientious treatment of an acupuncture patient – a good sign, she thought, for a future business partner. For Shao, Li's talent was clear. "One day, I went to Tina's home for a dinner, her experienced cooking impressed me very much." She has since translated her kitchen skills beyond dinner for two: the pair currently run 16 restaurants, most of them in Melbourne, and six under the Dainty Sichuan brand that made their names. For the first two-and-a-half years, they didn't take a single day off. And they still put in the hours. "Most days, we go to sleep 2am to 3am," Shao says. While Li is in charge of dish development and training staff, Shao mainly looks after marketing and editing menus. Li often goes to China for research, "then I come back to Melbourne and adjust it to suit the Australian customers".
Clayton Wells & Tania Fergusson (Photo: Will Horner)

Clayton Wells & Tania Fergusson

Automata, Sydney
Tania Fergusson and Clayton Wells first worked together at Viajante in London. "Apparently I was always rude to her, or so she says." Then Fergusson realised that what she thought was an aloofness was simply the chef's shyness. They soon bonded over food and, on returning to Sydney, "our mutual love of Golden Century," says Wells. "Tania was working in advertising while we were opening Automata and then would come home from work and help me with the stuff I had no idea about." Her grasp of his vision led to her making the leap into a role as communications manager for Automata and A1 Canteen. They work together and the demarcations aren't iron-clad. Wells isn't allowed near computers ("I'm way too slow at typing, apparently"), and while Fergusson stays out of the kitchen, she does "a lot of taste testing". And then there was that time she helped Wells peel nine kilos of grapes for a Cook For Syria charity dinner. After opening three restaurants in three years, Wells is looking forward to their much-postponed holiday in Italy, where they'll be "doing absolutely nothing together".
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  • Author: Lee Tran Lam